Monterey Pop Festival: The Fifty Year Anniversary

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Airplane by Elaine Mayes

It happened in June of 1967, before Woodstock and Altamont. The Beatles were still a band that had four singles in the top ten. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits was released and it landed on the charts behind the Monkees, the Doors, the Stones, Aretha Franklin, and the Velvet Underground with Nico. Johnny Cash had yet to record at Folsom Prison and Gram Parsons was neither a Byrd nor a Burrito Brother. Townes Van Zandt was still playing at a club in Houston, Steve Earle was only 12, Jay Farrar turned seven months old, and Jeff Tweedy was yet to be born. There was no radio format called Americana, and it would be 28 years until Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden would publish the first issue of No Depression.

On the first day of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival I had just finished up tenth grade, and was living 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia. Throughout the spring and summer I was hanging out at the Guitar Workshop, downtown near Rittenhouse Square, where I’d dust off the Martins and run errands. It was around the corner from The 2nd Fret, a coffeehouse where you’d see old blues men, young folkies and local bands. On July 23, my friend Carol Drucker asked if I wanted to go with her to see the Mamas and the Papas at Convention Hall. On the bill were the Blues Magoos, Moby Grape, and a guy named Scott McKenzie. That night was the first time we heard news about this festival they had in California.

The three days and nights of the Monterey Pop Festival were put together in just seven weeks as a nonprofit event. It has been written that the idea first came out of a discussion at Cass Elliot’s house with Paul McCartney, John and Michelle Phillips, and producer Lou Adler. Alan Pariser and promoter Ben Shapiro approached John and Lou about staging it in Monterey and a number of people jumped onboard, including Peter Pilaflan, Chip Monck, Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, Tom Wilkes, and David Wheeler.

It’s that Canned Heat performance from Saturday afternoon that was on my mind this week and prompted me to troll YouTube. I was researching ’60s “white boy” blues bands and remembered seeing it years ago. What I had forgotten about was how much of the festival was caught on film by D.A. Pennbacker. Although it was released the following year as a 79-minute film, in 2002 a three-disc high definition DVD set with a super clean 5.1 mix was brought out and is still available from The Criterion Collection.

The performances that are most known from the original release included The Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Brother and The Holding Company with Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and Jefferson Airplane. The full collection also has the “outtakes,” with the Blues Project, the Byrds, Country Joe and the Fish, the Electric Flag, Al Kooper, Laura Nyro, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Simon & Garfunkel, and more.

Here’s Pennbacker on how the film was shot:

The music performances would be recorded on eight track recorders, which had only recently been invented and were quite rare. The real complication was getting the film we shot to sync with the sound. The cameras we were going to use weighed heavily on my mind as we had made them ourselves. There were no commercial cameras we could handhold that would run the film in real time and sync to the sound. And the syncing was not always perfect.

We knew that there was going to be much more music than we could fit into a ninety minute film, so Bobby Neuwirth tended a red light at the edge of the stage which would be on for the songs we had chosen so all the cameras would know what to shoot. But when Jimi Hendrix or Otis Redding or The Who got going, the red light never went off.

That’s Booker T. and The M.G.’s with the Mar-Keys’ horn section backing Otis Redding, who six months later would die in a plane crash. He was the closing act on Saturday night and up until then he had performed mainly for black audiences. According to Booker T. Jones, “I think we did one of our best shows, Otis and the M.G.’s. That we were included in that was also something of a phenomenon. That we were there? With those people? They were accepting us and that was one of the things that really moved Otis. He was happy to be included and it brought him a new audience. It was greatly expanded in Monterey.”

The festival was indeed a nonprofit event, with every artist playing for free, with the exception of Ravi Shankar, who was paid $3,000. Country Joe and The Fish earned $5,000 from the film but all other funds went to The Foundation, which describes itself as “a nonprofit charitable and educational foundation empowering music-related personal development, creativity, and mental and physical health. In the spirit of the Monterey International Pop Festival, and on behalf of the artists who took part, the Foundation awards grants to qualified organizations and individuals with identifiable needs in those areas.”

Brian Wilson, who was on the board of directors for the festival, and the Beach Boys were scheduled to headline one night but cancelled. The Kinks, Donovan, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards couldn’t secure visas into the country. Brian Jones attended and introduced Hendrix. Invited but declining to appear were the Beatles, Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, Dionne Warwick, and several Motown artists. Moby Grape’s film and audio remain unreleased as their manager Matthew Katz demanded $1,000,000 for the rights. (Of course, this being 2017, the audio has been found and posted on You Tube…hail hail rock n’ roll.)

This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression dot com.